Just over a week ago I was in El Alamein – that desert waste in the North of Egypt where Montgomery and his 8th Army finally routed Rommel and his troops. In many ways that battle was the turning point of the Second World War. As Churchill said, prior to the battle of El Alamein there was never a victory; while after that battle there was never a defeat.
And yet so many thousands of men fell in that battle. What’s more, many of these men died dreadful deaths, they were literally fried in their tanks.
The night before my youngest son and I visited El Alamein I had watched an old film which told the story of what was perhaps the most critical battle in the Second World War. In 1942 the British Army was facing imminent defeat in North Africa. At this point Montgomery took command. He set out to change the mind-set of every soldier serving under him. He inculcated them with a vision of victory. He did this through the sheer force of his personality. For him leadership was “the capacity to rally men and women to a common purpose, and the character which inspires confidence”. He went on to say:
A leader must exercise an influence, and the degree to which he can do this will depend on the personality of the man – the incandescence of which he is capable, the flame which burns within him, the magnetism which will draw the hearts of men toward him.
However, on the day we visited El-Alamein it was not Montgomery’s leadership skills which were in mind, but rather the fearful cost of war. My youngest son and I walked around the war graves. First, we went to see the graves of the British & Commonwealth soldiers. For me it was a most moving experience as I read the inscriptions on one headstone after another. It was with difficulty that I kept back my tears. We then went on to see the graves of the German troops, and finally the graves of the Italian army. I was reminded of the pain, the misery, the hate, the waste of war. War is a dreadful business.
Waste of Muscle, waste of Brain,
Waste of Patience, waste of Pain,
Waste of Manhood, waste of Health,
Waste of Beauty, waste of Wealth,
Waste of Blood, and waste of Tears,
Waste of Youth’s most precious years,
Waste of ways the Saints have trod,
Waste of Glory, waste of God – War!
These lines penned by Studdart-Kennedy, popularly known as ‘Woodbine Willie’, who served as a chaplain to the forces in the 1st World War, are as true today as ever. There is nothing glorious about war.
Thank God, however, that war will never have the last word. This coming Sunday is Advent Sunday, the day when Christians look forward to the new world which is coming – a world where “death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more” (Rev 21.4). Then, declared the prophets, people “shall beat their swords ionto plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isaiah 2.4; Micah 4.3). Not for nothing has it been said that “Here… is one of great prophetic visions of all time, making articulate the immemorial longing of the human heart for peace”. But it is more than a dream of world-peace. It is a dream of peace that issues from the coming of the Kingdom of God. For the fact is that without God the dream remains a dream.
The context of this dream as found in Isaiah and Micah is that the day will come when “the nations” shall say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways, and that we may walk in his paths”. Then God “shall judge between the nations and shall arbitrate for many peoples”. The ensuing peace will not be of our making, but of God’s making. This is the Advent hope.
It is precisely because this dream of peace is rooted in God that we know that the Advent hope is more than wishful thinking. For it is God who will establish a ‘pax Jerusalem’. It is within the context of his Kingdom that “all will be well”. Then there will be a cessation of political and economic oppression. Then there will be an end to hateful, divisive ideology. Then the nations will learn peace – and will practise peace.